You call it "corn", we call it "fuel" -- at least in the United States. Recent statistics show that, for the first time in history, America is using more corn to fill gas tanks than to fill the bellies of either humans or livestock.
Corn in history
For Americans, corn has long been tied to our national identity. In grade school textbooks, we're presented with drawings of Native Americans teaching Pilgrim settlers how to raise corn in quantity. Ears of it spill out of Thanksgiving cornucopia. Images of corn fields are a common metaphor for the U.S. heartland (and also, horror films.) And of course, corn is a staple food at that most cherished American feast, the summer barbecue.
But in the 1990s, things began to shift, as corn-based ethanol became more common in gasoline across the country. The long, strange history of U.S. subsidies to support corn production is fodder for another post (like, say, this one), but suffice it to say that recent legislation and regulation have given a huge boost to the crop, while cutting out competition from other countries like Brazil.
Now, data has shown that for the first time in history, the U.S. uses more corn for ethanol than for feeding either humans or livestock. Roughly 20% of U.S. corn is used for human consumption -- either as whole corn, oil, corn syrup, or other products. Of the remaining 80%, just over half -- 5.05 billion bushels goes into fuel tanks. Only 5 billion ends up as animal feed.
Perhaps more shocking is the fact that farm subsidies have made ethanol cheaper than gasoline. As a result, the U.S. exported nearly 400 million gallons of ethanol last year, just as the country was importing costly foreign oil.
Corn's complicated role in politics and daily life doesn't sit well with many people. Automakers are concerned about potential damage ethanol can cause to engines and fuel systems. Environmentalists point out that ethanol may seem eco-friendly, but that impression is very misleading. And certain Islamic scholars have argued that ethanol is inherently sinful. Put that in your corn cob pipe and smoke it.
Will the U.S. finally nix corn subsidies? And how will any action on Capitol Hill affect the world's current food shortage problem? No one can say for sure, but feel free to weigh in below with your own take on the matter.